Written by Dr. Paul Kelly, C.Psych. October 1, 2023
You can make lifestyle changes to help prevent or overcome depression. Do you feel too depressed to start? Don’t worry. This self-help article is easy to read. I will also recommend small steps – so you can get started without getting overwhelmed. We will look at sleep, sunlight, diet, exercise, social connections, and ruminations.
Here is my promise: These lifestyle changes are worth trying. They can help you prevent or overcome depression. I started to use many of them when I was depressed – and they really helped me.
The Big Picture
These 6 lifestyle changes can help you to prevent depression. That is, they can help you to stop normal sadness from spiralling into clinical depression. If you are depressed now, these lifestyle changes can help you to recover. I know this is true for 2 reasons: 1) These lifestyle changes helped me recover when I was depressed. 2) There is lots of high quality research to show the benefit of these changes – for both prevention of depression, and recovery from depression.
This article was inspired by Dr. Stephen Ilardi’s excellent 2009 book: The Depression Cure: The 6-step program to beat depression without drugs. In 2023, I updated his work with information about new discoveries on lifestyle and depression. I have also added some recommendations based on what I have learned while helping people with depression.
Here are the 6 Lifestyle Changes.
- Get Enough Sleep: Depression affects sleep. You can learn to improve your sleep.
- Get More Sunshine: Sunlight can help you prevent or overcome depression. Artificial sunlight also works.
- Get Connected with Others: Spend more time with family, friends, or pets.
- Stop Ruminating: Ruminating, excess worrying, can keep you trapped in depression. There is a simple way to free yourself.
- Eat Well to Feel Well: Change your diet and boost your mood – eat less ultra-processed food and get enough Omega 3.
- Get More Exercise: Regular physical activity is a wonderful antidote for depression. Even a little bit helps.
Now that you have seen the big picture, let’s look at the practical details in the next sections. If you feel overwhelmed while reading this, please take a breath or get some water, and then keep reading. I hope that you can find something here that will inspire you and help you.
1: Get Enough Sleep
Up to 80% of people with depression have insomnia problems. Do you have trouble falling asleep? Do you wake up early and have trouble getting back to sleep? These are symptoms of depression. Here is the good news: You can get your sleep back on track with some simple changes in your routine. Try these changes:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
- Avoid caffeine after 2 PM. Limit caffeine intake to 2 cups per day. This includes coffee, tea, cola, and energy drinks.
- Don’t use alcohol to help you fall asleep. It can help you nod off, but then you will wake up in the night.
- Stop screen use one hour before bedtime. Don’t bring your phone into the bedroom. Get an alarm clock.
- Limit daytime naps to 20 minutes.
- Sleep in a dark room. Use a sleep mask if there is too much light. (I have used one for years. It really helps.)
- When you get in bed, do something to wind down and settle. Use a relaxation technique like diaphragmatic breathing or visualize a pleasant scene or memory.
How to Start Small:
Pick one thing from the list above. Do it for one week. Then add another change after the first one is part of your new routine.
Would You Like More Help?
CBTi – Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia can help you learn to overcome insomnia. Here are some tips about it from the Mayo Clinic. If you like to read, here is a good self-help book: Goodnight Mind – turn off your noisy thoughts and get a good night’s sleep, by Colleen E. Carney, PhD, and Rachel Manber, PhD. The link to her book will also take you to other self-help resources on her website. My Clinic also offers a version of CBTi online, if you would like the support of a trained therapist.
2: Get More Sunlight
Regular exposure to sunlight is beneficial for people with clinical depression. Sunlight exposure helps the body produce vitamin D, serotonin, and melatonin. This means that your brain will work better when you get enough sunlight. Many people get depressed in the winter because the days are shorter. There is a solution for the winter months as well. Bright Light Therapy lamps, or light boxes, are available. They can simulate the brightness of a sunny morning and give you a dose of ‘sunlight’ in the comfort of your home.
Here are some recommendations to increase your sunlight exposure:
- Walk outside, once or twice each day: 10-15 minutes in the summer, and 15-20 minutes for the rest of the year. In the dark months of winter, use a light box.
- The Mayo Clinic recommends that you get some advice before you buy a light box. Check with your doctor, nurse, or optometrist.
- Here are some tips for getting started: Purchase a light box that provides 10,000 lux of light exposure, with minimal UV light; use it within the first hour of waking up for 20-30 minutes; keep your eyes open but do not look directly at the light; place light 16-24 inches from your face, as per manufacturer’s instructions.
How to Start Small: Walk outside for 5 minutes in one direction, and then return. Add a few minutes each day and soon you will be doing 20 minutes. Make it a habit. Go at the same time each day. Link walking with something else you do every day – like after lunch, or after your first coffee.
Would You Like More Help?
- For outside walks: Ask a friend or coworker to walk with you, or sit outside with you for lunch.
- For light boxes: Set up your light box so it is handy. I use mine while I eat breakfast.
- If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then you should speak with your physician before using a light box. Exposure to intense light may trigger a manic episode. Consult an optometrist if you have any past eye problem such as: glaucoma, cataracts, or eye damage from diabetes.
3: Get Connected with Others
When we are depressed, we tend to isolate ourselves. We withdraw and turn down invitations and chances to be with people. Isolation and disconnection can keep you trapped in depression. That’s why getting reconnected is so important. Being with people, and doing things with them, has huge benefits. Social contacts can help you prevent and overcome depression.
I know it can be difficult to reconnect. Here is some things to try.
- Think of one friend or family member that you used to share an activity with. Text them or phone them. Invite them to meet up: Go for a walk, have a coffee, or watch a movie.
- When you are out with someone, focus on your surroundings. Talk about what is happening. Don’t spend the whole visit talking about how bad you have been feeling.
- Visit with someone in real time, whether it is in person, phone, or video link.
- It’s okay to educate your friend about your depression, and to ask them for help. People are more understanding about mental health issues these days.
- Look for opportunities for casual social contact. Smile at the clerk in the checkout line when you buy your groceries. Next time, they may smile first.
- Consider getting a pet. A cat or dog can provide faithful social companionship. And they asked very little of us. When you are out with a dog or a cat, people are more likely to talk to you and be friendly.
- Watch out for toxic relationships. Avoid people who are too critical, judgemental, or condescending. Find people who are kind.
- Most of us have a small number of very close contacts. Reach out to them for sure, but also look for ways to cultivate more casual social contacts. Consider volunteering or joining a meet up group. You might try hiking, crafting, social dancing, or board games. Look for amateur sports leagues. Consider joining a church or meditation group. Even if you are not sure what your beliefs are, most spiritual places will welcome you as a guest.
How to Start Small: Review the list above. What was the smallest or simplest recommendation, you could act on? Pick that one and give it a try.
Would You Like More Help? Many localities have social support groups for people living with depression. Go online and do search for ‘social support group, depression.’ See what’s available. You should be able to find something local. You will also see info about online groups. Look for something sponsored by a reputable organization. Here is something I can recommend for people living in Ontario, Canada.
4: Stop Ruminating
Ruminating makes depression worse. Ruminating means going over and over the same thoughts and worries. When you get caught up in rumination, it can produce a negative spiral of feeling bad and thinking the worst. When we brood like this, we stop noticing the world around us. We don’t notice opportunities that would help us feel more capable or pleasant.
Here is the good news: It is possible to free yourself from being stuck in rumination. The first step is to notice when it’s happening. This is mindfulness. The second step is to redirect your focus of attention to some other activity.
How to Start Small: When you notice that you are caught up in worry and rumination, try these 3 steps: 1) Say to yourself, I am more than my thoughts; 2) Get out of your head, by focusing your attention on a sensation – like the feeling of your feet on the ground, or sights or sounds; 3) Don’t try to block the thought or stop it. Just shift your attention away from it, and carry on. With these 3 steps you can stop your mind from spiralling into more intense depression. You will have to repeat these steps many times during the day. Eventually, your brain will be retrained, so you can have thoughts without getting too caught up in them.
Would You Like More Help? Mindfulness training can help you to notice ruminations and not stay caught up in them. MBCT – Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy helps people overcome and prevent depression. Here is a Directory of approved MBCT therapists and clinics.) My Clinic is on the list. We offer an online MBCT course.
5: Eat Well to Feel Well
Eating well can help you prevent depression. Start with some small changes to your diet. Cutting back on junk food, and ultra-processed food, can lower your risk of depression. Watch out for these foods: sweet or savoury snacks, processed meats, artificial sweeteners, ready-to-eat meals, and ultra-processed dairy products. Omega-3 fatty acids also play an important role for preventing depression. You can improve your intake of omega-3 by eating fatty fish or flaxseed, or by taking a supplement.
Here are some tips for improving your diet:
- Drink more water. This will help you to cut back on sugary drinks, like pop, sports drinks, or fruit juice. Add concentrated lime or lemon to make flavoured water, or try sparkling water.
- Keep healthy snacks close at hand. Nuts, dried fruit, or sliced raw vegetables like carrots make a good healthy snack.
- Cut back on processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, lunchmeat or sausages. Instead try salmon, turkey, chicken breast or eggs.
- Eat more vegetables and fruit.
- Prepare food in large batches. Then you will have something ready to heat up when you feel too tired to cook.
- A 2023 article is the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that consumption of ultraprocessed food and artificial sweetener puts you at greater risk for depression. The good news is that cutting back on these unhealthy foods helps prevent depression.
- People who consume enough omega-3’s are less likely to have depression or anxiety. Omega-3’s also lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, blood clots, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, age-related macular degeneration, and some forms of cancer. These types of fish are excellent sources of omega-3: mackerel, salmon, herring, tuna, halibut, and sardines. Here are some plant-based sources of omega-3: ground or milled flaxseed, chia seeds, Edamame, or walnuts.
How to Start Small: Take it slow and make one or two changes a week. You can feel proud of yourself for switching to sparkling water from pop or soda. Check the tips above and see what else would be easy for you.
Would You Like More Help? Do some research on ‘ultraprocessed foods’ to learn more about what to avoid or reduce. A Mediterranean diet would be good for your overall health and would help you prevent depression. If you switch your diet from ultra-processed refined foods to a diet with fatty fish or more seeds and nuts, you probably may not need to take omega-3 supplements. If you decide to use omega-3 supplements, get some advice from your pharmacist or dietitian. Here is some advice from the Mayo Clinic.
6: Get More Exercise
When we are depressed, we have thoughts like “I’m tired. I need to rest. I will be more active after I feel better.” This kind of thinking keeps us trapped in depression. We have to switch our thinking around in order to overcome depression. Say this instead: “I will start to do things, then I will start to feel better.” When we stay active, it helps to prevent depression. When we get active, it helps us to overcome depression. I know this is true because I have been through it myself. Also, there are 41 research studies to back it up.
How to Start Small: When it seems hard to start something, be kind to yourself. The resistance comes from the depression. You are not lazy or unworthy. Then, get up and try to be active even if only for a few minutes.
Would You Like More Help? Check out this article: Exercise is a safe, effective and inexpensive treatment for Depression. It gives you lots of tips about how to boost your mood by increasing physical activity. If you are depressed now, start small and give yourself time to increase your activity. If you are not depressed, you might be interested in High-Intensity Interval Training. It is a very time efficient way to boost your mood and vitality. I do it twice a week and it has been wonderful for me.
I personally selected and reviewed all the sources for this article. I respect that you need information that is current, accurate, and trustworthy. My advice is based on high-quality research, and on my decades of clinical experience, treating clients and mentoring other therapists and psychologists. I wish you well. Dr. Kelly
- Sarris, J., Thomson, R., Hargraves, F. et al. Multiple lifestyle factors and depressed mood: a cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of the UK Biobank (N = 84,860). BMC Med 18, 354 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-020-01813-5
- Ilardi, Stephen. The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. De Capo Press, 2009.
- Botanov, Y., Keil, K. M., Ilardi, S. S., Scheller, V. K., Sharp, K. L., & Williams, C. L. (2012). Successful Treatment of Depression via Therapeutic Lifestyle Change: Preliminary Controlled-Trial Results. (Poster presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Psychological Science.
- Jacobson, J. D., Kenneth, L. A., Stites, B. A., Karwoski, L., Stroupe, N. N., Steidtmann, D. K.,… Ilardi, S. S. (2007).Therapeutic Lifestyle Change for Depression: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Poster presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, Philadelphia, PA.
- Bonnet, M., & Arand, D. (2022, April 15). Risk factors, comorbidities, and consequences of insomnia in adults. In R. Benca (Ed.). UpToDate., Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/risk-factors-comorbidities-and-consequences-of-insomnia-in-adults
- Carney, Colleen E. & Manber, Rachel. Goodnight Sleep: Turn off your noisy thoughts & get a good night’s sleep. New Harbinger Publications, 2013.
- Bimodal effects of sunlight on Major Depressive Disorder, Jungmin Son and Jinhee Shin, Comprehensive Psychiatry, Volume 108, July 2021, 152232. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010440X21000109
- Firth, J., Gangwisch, J.E., Borsini, A., Wooton, R.E., & Mayer, E.A. (2020) Food and mood: How do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing, British Medical Journal, https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2382
- Samuthpongtorn, C., Nguyen, L.H., Okereke, O.I., et al. (2023) Consumption of ultraprocessed food and risk of depression, JAMA Network Open, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2809727
- Heissel, A., Heinen, D., Brokmeier, L.L., Skarabis, N., et al. (2022). Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/57/16/1049.full.pdf